Chalcedon Position Paper No. 90, September 1987
Words often tend to be dulled and cheapened with time. Careless usage, poor education, and indifference to clarity serve to blur the meaning of words, so that we often inherit words which were once sharp tools but now have dulled edges.
Two such words are sin and evil. Until recently, the dictionary definition of sin retained its Biblical focus: “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), God’s law. The Biblical orientation of the word “sin” tells us why the term is not much used outside of the church: it speaks too clearly of personal responsibility to God.
“Evil,” on the other hand, has a broader definition, in the Bible and in dictionaries. It can and does include sin, but it means much more. It covers calamities, diseases, death, disasters, and the like.
Evil can be a result of sin; thus, sexually transmitted diseases are always evil, but they are not always a result of sin, if caught innocently. On the other hand, death is a result of the fall and of man’s sin, but death itself is not a sin, although it is called an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). Sickness is an evil, but not necessarily a sin, although on occasion it can be a result of sin.
The distinction between sin and evil is a very important one. Theological errors have resulted from their confusion. Thus, Christ by His atonement redeems us from sin; He takes upon Himself the penalty for sin, the death sentence, so that we are delivered into everlasting life. By His atonement, we are made a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and our calling is to reconstruction, to the restoration of all things and the elimination of all evils until, with Christ’s coming again, “the last enemy . . . death,” is then destroyed (1 Cor. 15:25–26).
The atonement thus covers sin, not evil. The redeemed man has a duty to destroy the effect of sin in himself, i.e., to “mortify” it (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). Christ must reign in the new man and through him subjugate “all rule and all authority and power,” so that only “the last enemy . . . death,” remains at Christ’s coming (1 Cor. 15:24–26). This destruction of evil comes through sanctification; it comes also through scientific work which overcomes diseases and “natural” threats of a fallen world. In every sphere, we are to work to overcome evil and enthrone Christ.
Our atonement does not sanctify us perfectly: it gives us the power to make our lives and spheres holy. Our standing before God is as innocent in Christ, but we now have the duty to develop the new life of righteousness or justice in every sphere.
In false views of the atonement, sin and evil are both seen as destroyed, not only with respect to our legal status before God, but in our psychological status, so that we are supposedly perfect in holiness and freed from evil. To be sick then becomes evidence of sin! A generation or two ago, one minor cult leader was sure that the atonement had freed him from sin and death so that he would neither sin nor die. (He did both.)
In terms of such thinking, healing, instead of being a ministry of compassion, became a demand for trust or belief in the atonement.
A key difference between sin and evil is that sin is always personal, whereas evil is often impersonal. Sins are the acts of men and have no existence apart from human action, creaturely action, in transgression of the law of God. It is thus an absurdity to say we should hate the sin and love the sinner. It is an artificial distinction. Theft, adultery, murder, false witness, covetousness, idolatry, dishonoring parents, and other sins are the acts of men and are the expressions of their moral nature. The man who steals is a thief, and the man who commits murder is a murderer. The act does not occur of itself; it is the act of a sinful man, and it is an expression of his will and life. Our Lord insists on the unity of a man’s life and his works; hence, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:33–34).
Sin is not an entity: it is an act of man’s will, whereby he transgresses God’s law because man prefers his own will and way to God’s requirements. Its origins are in Genesis 3:5, man’s will to be his own god.
Modern man does not like to speak of “sin.” Many churches have dropped the word “sin” from their vocabulary. Pastoral psychology finds all kinds of good reasons for sins: need, loneliness, neglect, self-realization, deprivation, and much, much more. All these “reasons” have a common purpose, to diminish personal responsibility for sin. We are full of “good excuses,” and we encourage them. “I didn’t know what I was doing.” “My intentions were good, but, before I knew what I was doing, I was in trouble.” “If only my training had better prepared me, this never would have happened.” Or, in “Flip” Wilson’s words, “The devil made me do it.” Perhaps the most common “not guilty” plea is this: “Well, I’m only human!” In other words, God made me this way, so He is to blame.
Sin is not a popular subject for preaching these days! Many church officers and members will insist on “positive preaching” to “build up” the listeners, and the congregation’s size. (For a year or two, one woman wrote me particularly vicious letters every few weeks to let me know what a hateful person I obviously was because of my writings. Particular statements would move her to fury; they obviously troubled her, and she called me every kind of ugly name. She demanded a gospel of love, told me she was praying for my salvation, and then signed her letters, “In Christian love.” I have received, over the years, much hatred and venom by mail, all in the name of love! Show me a “love-baby,” and I will likely be face to face with an accomplished hater!)
Modern man does not like to hear anything about sin, but he does speak freely of evil. Remember, sin is personal, very personal. If someone talks about sin in your life and mine, they are getting totally personal! However, if they talk about the evil we experience, the talk is impersonal. A disastrous storm, or a tornado, can do much evil, but it involves no guilt on your part and mine. But if you talk about my sin, you are getting very personal!
Today, because fallen men run nations, the talk is about evils, not sins. These evils are outside of us. They are things like poverty, hunger, war, sickness, and more. The “solution” to social evils is then declared to be the appropriation of more money; more power to the state; more money for education, research, and study; more social engineers and planners; and so on and on.
The cost of these legislative and bureaucratic solutions is very, very great. For one thing, it means more and more taxation. In the United States, it adds up, on all levels, to a taxation in excess of 45 percent of our income. In most countries, the direct and indirect taxes add up to far more. This, however, is only the taxation cost by income, sales, manufacturing, and other taxes. An even more deadly form of taxation is inflation, which steadily devours savings and capital; it also destroys the value of pensions and life insurance. There is also the cost of freedom, and we continually see our freedom diminished in the name of this war against social evils.
Meanwhile, the evils increase, because the solution is a false one and only aggravates the problem. It was man’s sin that brought evil into the world, and to bypass sin is to give evil greater freedom. God declares (Deut. 28) that He diminishes evils as men believe and obey Him, and increases and intensifies them as men disobey Him. We also aggravate our plight by insisting that sin is not sin but a social evil, not personal but impersonal. Sociologists do not call sin by its proper name; criminals are explained by heredity, or by environment. Their genes were bad, or their family environment was entirely wrong for them. This is another way of saying that criminals are “not guilty.”
Drop the word “sin” from law, and in time you drop also the word “guilty.” Remember, sin is personal; it is the transgression of the law of God. It is a personal act of rebellion by man against God and His Word.
Dostoyevsky saw the logic of unbelief: if there were no God, all men could do as they pleased, because there would then be no sin. Nietzsche embraced this belief: the new man must live beyond good and evil because, he held, God is dead. Walter Kaufmann, in Without Guilt and Justice (1973), held that guilt and innocence, justice and injustice, are theological doctrines. Because man now lives beyond this belief in God, in autonomy, he can dispense with guilt and justice, because neither concept now has meaning. The last “chapter” of Kaufmann’s book is his retelling of Genesis 3:5; man is now ready to be his own god and determine good and evil for himself. “Nobody knows what is good. There is no such knowledge. Once upon a time God decided, but now that he is dead it is up to you to decide. It is up to you to leave behind guilt and fear. You can be autonomous” (p. 237). (We should not be surprised at any kind of madness in Kaufmann’s writings: he was a man who not only read Hegel on his honeymoon but wrote proudly of it!)
No God, no sin, no guilt — this is the modern equation, a thoroughly suicidal one. God declares, “he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36). The men who heralded the death of God were actually declaring the death of man.
Long before Nietzsche and Kaufmann, men were paving the way for them by subverting the moral criteria. When Milton’s Satan, in Paradise Lost, says, “Evil be thou my good,” Milton was giving us a long-current opinion through Satan. The humanist scholar, Lorenzo Valla, in De voluptate (1431), held that pleasure is the only authentic good of man; all goods can be reduced to pleasure. This is man’s natural and hence normative goal. True, Valla could say, and his apologists use it to justify him, that glory and a contemplative life give pleasure to some. Let us remember, however, the pleasure Valla took in declaring, “courtesans and harlots are more deserving of honor from humankind than holy and chaste virgins.” Some men try to tell us that Renaissance humanism meant simply the study of classical literature. It was indeed that, but it was commonly governed by a delight in classical immoralism. For too many classical scholars, sin was a form of freedom, and for some the key form.
This is still true of many circles, including the circles in which Lord Keynes, Strachey, and others, the so-called “Apostles,” moved. It is basic to the “sexual revolution,” to abortion, and to the homosexual agitation: sin is declared to be the new freedom. Evil is by some then defined as restriction on the freedom of man to live in defiance of God and to declare sin to be man’s true freedom.
It is instructive, in this regard, to remember that this was the creed of developed and mature paganism in imperial Rome. As Donald Earl noted, in The Age of Augustus (1980), “Sexual freedom . . . was a prerogative of the Roman noble, female as well as male” (p. 192). Now, with the prevalence of the democratic spirit, this “right” to immoralism is claimed by all classes. Less than ten years ago, a raging University of California Los Angeles student insisted to me that the wages of sin are not death (Rom. 6:23), but a richer and freer life.
The Westminster Larger Catechism echoes Scripture to declare, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature” (Question 24). As 1 John 3:4 and all of Scripture makes clear, “sin is the transgression of the law,” i.e., the law of God.
This brings us to the heart of our problem. When the church is antinomian and despises the law of God, what can we expect of the world? When the church bypasses the Bible’s definition of sin, why should the world pay attention to it? The reformation of society must begin with the reformation of the church.